Metro DC’s not that rich (for the most part)

Western Avenue
Western at Wisconsin in Friendship Heights: not Madison Ave. by a long stretch

Nate Cohn in the New Republic addresses a factoid that really bugs me: metropolitan Washington is not the wealthiest region in the country, because sums, means, and medians are all quite different things. Rather, the surprisingly high median household incomes posted by many suburban jurisdictions here reflect a large upper middle class of dual-income white-collar families, rather than the very spiky (higher average, lower median) incomes that one finds in New York City or Chicago (or, perhaps even more strikingly, metro Chicago).

Compare, for instance, the Gini coefficients for income (derived from 5-year ACS):
Central jurisdictions
New York County (Manhattan): 0.60
District of Columbia: 0.53
Suburban jurisdictions
Fairfield County, Conn.: 0.53
Hudson County, N.J.: 0.48
Prince George’s County, Md.: 0.38
Loudoun County, Va.: 0.36

For the suburban jurisdictions, that’s the difference between Brazil or Zimbabwe-level inequality in NYC suburbs vs. Japan-level inequality in the Washington suburbs. Despite the District having worse income inequality than any state,* the region as a whole ranks 82nd among top-100 metro areas in income inequality.

This broad equality also contributes to the region’s general good performance on other economic metrics. Despite the extortionate cost of housing locally, proportionately high incomes for the middle class mean that the cost of living is about as reasonable as in Des Moines. A preponderance of well-paid jobs makes the area the most productive in the USA, as the returns on labor are pretty broadly distributed here.

This particular factoid is a favorite of those who trot out the tired “Boomtown DC, growing fat on your tax dollars” GOP talking point. That would have been a correct storyline back when Virginia defense contractors were getting rich off of Presidents Reagan & Bush(es), but it doesn’t quite hold today for various reasons. Besides, those complaining might take a closer look at how wealth elsewhere ultimately stems from federally directed subsidies from “the rest of us”: boomtown Houston flourishes only through vast implicit subsidies to untaxed, unregulated carbon pollution, and booming NYC (with more cranes building more flats for the superrich than anywhere else in the USA) is fed by a federally bankrolled financial industry.

Incidentally, anyone who is looking for the super-rich around here shouldn’t look along the Red Line. Wisconsin Ave. may have “Gucci Gulch,” but besides its relative lack of ostentation (a clue that the real money in America is elsewhere), it’s not nearly as exclusive as the sensitive watershed to its south. Stephen Higley locates the real gold coast along the Potomac gorge: the storied Embassy Row — so named because many of its Gilded Age mansions now house chanceries — of Massachusetts Ave. and its Maryland extension, River Road, plus their Virginia counterpart of Georgetown Pike.

* Typical disclaimer: D.C., as a wholly urbanized place, is not comparable to any state. Urban areas usually have higher inequality, since the very wealthy generally earn their living only within metropolitan economies.